Searching for Truth

IN THE LATE '70s, Ian McEwan was hailed as the Young Genius of British fiction. His gritty, downbeat, grisly stories were a cross between Lord of the Flies and The Twilight Zone, and created a small sensation. Along about 1982, however -- soon after his novel The Comfort of Strangers was published -- McEwan seemed to drop out of sight, especially for American readers.

He made a film called The Ploughman's Lunch, and had such a good time that he continued doing other scriptwork, most recently of Timothy Mo's novel Sour Sweet. And he slowly plugged away on the newly published The Child in Time (Houghton Mifflin), a much more political work than his earlier fiction.

"I never before had enough confidence in my understanding of what society was," he says. "All I could do was start with myself, and my own rather troubled consciousness and unconsciousness, before I could write outwards."

People used to smirkingly ask him whether those early stories -- which included incidents of incest and such events as a family of children burying their dead mother in the basement -- were autobiographical. McEwan would say no, but now he realizes that "in some very important but rather more complicated way they were. They obviously reflected in very displaced ways tensions in myself."

What bothered him almost as much as the is-it-all-true question was the simple labeling of the stories collected in First Love, Last Rites and In Between the Sheets as lurid. He feels his sense of humor, especially, got short shrift. "When I wrote a story about a woman having an affair with an ape as she tried to write her second book, I assumed people would see that in a comic framework. But instead they would ask, 'To what extent do you sanction cohabitation between humans and animals?' "

A crucial early scene in The Child in Time recounts the abduction of a 3-year-old girl. In spite of some of the horrors of his early fiction, McEwan says he's never thought of anything that's frightened him quite so much. "You'd always be haunted by the fact that the child is somewhere around, and that you could find it, rescue it, redeem it. There would be no finality. It seemed like a torture."

When he read that chapter aloud at a writers' conference, novelist Robert Stone got to his feet, McEwan recalls, "and gave the most moving speech. He was sort of trembling with emotion, and said, 'Why do writers always have to think of the worst thing? What is it that impells us to be thinking up the worst case?' It's an unanswerable question that now echoes in my mind all the time.

"My clumsy answer is, if you want to establish what you think is positive or good or optimistic in life, the realistic way to do it is accept that the world is a very threatening and threatened place. Then you superimpose on that darkness whatever very fragile, positive thing you can put your hands on and honestly say is true."

More from Mencken

AN UNPUBLISHED work by H.L. Mencken will be issued early next year under a catchy title: The Editor, the Bluenose and the Prostitute: H.L. Mencken's History of the "Hatrack" Censorship Case. "I figure that alone will make it sell 10,000 copies," says Mencken scholar Carl Bode, the book's editor and the source of the title. Roberts Rinehart of Boulder, Colo., is the publisher of Hatrack, which was written in 1937 and describes the controversy over the publication 11 years earlier in Mencken's American Mercury of an article about a Missouri prostitute.

"Hatrack" was the prostitute's nickname. The "bluenose" of the title was J. Frank Chase, the force behind the puritanical Watch and Ward Society. Chase had Mencken arrested in Boston for selling obscene literature. Luckily, the editor got a judge who actually read the magazine, and was impressed enough to dismiss the charge.

In the context of Mencken's work, Bode doesn't see Hatrack as being particularly important, which could be one reason it was never published. "What distinguishes this was that it is probably a unique example of Mencken writing an historical narrative," the editor says. "He was attempting to be more or less objective, and in that sense it isn't typical." And he has another reason why the work has significance today: "It's a contribution to the history of American censorship -- a battle that is still going on."

Pet Projects

DOGUE, a dogged parody of Vogue issued last year by the small New Jersey firm of Main Street Press, was a surprise success. But the possibility of earning even more money on a sequel is causing the fur to fly.

Main Street is currently shipping 150,000 copies of CQ, a canine spoof of fashion magazine GQ. Dogue author Ilene Hochberg has meanwhile jumped to Pocket Books, which is issuing 300,000 copies of Catmopolitan, a feline send-up whose source of inspiration should be obvious.

"Of course, we're not happy" about Catmopolitan, says Main Street editorial director Martin Greif. "Especially since the book was our idea." Responds Hochberg: "I had the original idea . . . I think they're just trying to manufacture a controversy." After Dogue became a hit, she says, Main Street "made a totally unrealistic offer for my next book."

Greif, saying "we consider this a war between cats and dogs," doesn't remember it that way at all. "I don't think it's a nice thing to do," he says of Hochberg's move to Pocket, "but this isn't a nice business . . . Anything is possible with human beings. That's why we like dogs so much."

Both sides insist the superior quality of their effort will settle the rivalry. Catmopolitan, for its part, is half parody and half product catalogue. (And sometimes not a very wide-ranging catalogue. The books column endorses six titles, every one of which is published by various branches of Simon and Schuster, owner of Pocket Books.) CQ uses much the same approach, but rather more successfully. It even gets in a little dig at the competition, which it calls Cowsmopolitan.

Zumwalt's Battle

WHEN My Father, My Son, a dual memoir by retired admiral Elmo Zumwalt Jr. and his son Elmo III, was published last fall, the younger Zumwalt's health -- victim, he believes, of the Agent Orange spraying ordered in Vietnam by his father -- was hanging in the balance. Zumwalt had survived an excruciatingly painful bone marrow transplant, but still ran a huge risk that his cancers (Hodgkin's disease and a rare form of lymphoma) would kill him.

An epilogue to the newly published paperback edition reveals that things seemed hopeful for a time. Then, last winter, the Hodgkin's returned. A new combination of anti-cancer drugs was tried, and Zumwalt is investigating other treatments, including psychoimmunology.

"I live forever on the edge of the danger zone," Zumwalt, 41, said earlier this month. "It's like being on the edge of a moon crater, and leaning forward and wondering whether you're going to fall. I've learned to do what it takes to make sure I don't fall, and am going to do that as long as it's conceivable. . .

"I am getting stronger and stronger. But you cannot be a survivor -- you cannot fight the competent battle -- if you think too much down the road. You've got to face it on a day-to-day basis, or you'll be mentally overwhelmed."

In the Margin

NON-PRESIDENTIAL candidate Pat Schroeder is writing The Great American Family with the help of Washington writer Amy Cunningham. The book was announced shortly before the Colorado congresswoman was to decide whether she was running, but Random House insists the timing was coincidental. Says editor Charlotte Mayerson: "The book was thought of and planned independently of the campaign." According to the publisher, the September 1988 publication "will offer a new agenda for preserving the American family in all its diversity through both public and private policies." Mayerson, meanwhile, is looking on the optimistic side of the non-candidacy. If Schroeder had decided to run, she points out, "she would have had less time to work on the book. It's going to be better because she'll have more time.". . .

Twenty years ago, Michael Holroyd received an advance of $250 for his biography of Lytton Strachey. Earlier this month, the British scholar got a considerably better deal from Chatto & Windus for his authorized life of George Bernard Shaw: slightly more than $1 million -- the most ever paid in Britain for a work of nonfiction. Holroyd has already spent 15 years researching and writing the three-volume book, which will be supplemented by a volume of notes, a paperback condensation and a companion guide. The opening volume, which covers the first 42 years of Shaw's life, will be published here by Random House next fall. ::